In pursuit of an anthro-complexity theory of organizational change

The last time I tried to understand Dave Snowden, I accidentally came up with a new idea. So it’s wonderful that he’s working on a new project now: since he shares many of my concerns, I hope that I can misunderstand him in an interesting and potentially valuable way (again). He is “… starting to develop an anthro-complexity theory of organizational change. As such I am working through some of the basic science relating to the constraints within which such a theory can be developed.”

If that sort of thing interests you, then his blog post is worth reading. Having worked on this problem myself for several years now, I have some thoughts. It’s very difficult to have my own thoughts with Dave’s post open on my second monitor, though, and if I start responding to his thoughts then the result will be a multi-hour ramble that attempts to encapsulate all of human history and prehistory and ultimately reaches a conclusion of “Yeah, it’s kinda tricky.” In order to do better than that, I have to focus on the question and pretend to ignore the thinking.

So let’s define terms. “Anthro-complexity theory” means a theory about the complexity (perhaps also the complicatedness, simplicity and unknowableness) of humans. “Of organizational change” means that it has to do with organizations starting out being a certain way, and ending up being a different way. “Basic science” is not applied science: it’s not how to do things, it’s why things happen. “Relating to the constraints within which such a theory can be developed” means that there’s an understanding that this theory exists in a bounded space: there are things it will be able to do, and things it will not be able to do.

So, my (mis?)understanding of the question is “Let’s find out what the rules are about what kind of predictions we can make about organizational change, given that we’re dealing with human beings, and human beings are hard to predict at times.”

I believe that if we are going to have a model of organizational change in my lifetime, it will be a Chinese-type model, and not a Western-type model. Once you accept a Chinese mode of thinking, it becomes possible to engage with complex problems without requiring them to be complicated problems. An alternative way of describing this is that we can have ‘engineering theories’ about organizational change, but we can’t have truly ‘scientific theories’.

Engineers (and Chinese philosophers) have a different attitude towards the truth than scientists (and Greek philosophers). Engineers believe that a theory is true if it helps them to build, repair, or maintain the machine they are working on. Scientists believe that a theory is true if it correctly accounts for all of the known facts and makes predictions that are testable, and the tests don’t falsify the theory and nobody’s come up with a better theory since then.

Consider the statement “Sometimes the server gets tired. If you reboot it, it’ll be fine for a while, until it gets tired again.” From an engineering point of view, this is a valid and testable statement. To test it, you reboot the server: if things are fine for a while and then get worse over time, the statement is ‘true enough’. From a scientific point of view, the statement is garbage: we start with the anthropomorphic fallacy, then launch into an investigation of garbage collection, dangling pointers, stack/heap collisions, endless loops, and lots of other possibilities.

In engineering terms, we can say that a server has an attribute called ‘tiredness’. And the more ‘clunk’ noises the drives make (in the 1980s, you could actually hear when the computer was under strain: modern computers are much more discreet about being under stress), the more likely it is that the computer is tired. And we can observe that some software is really tiring to run (because it’s full of dangling pointers, perhaps), while other software is less tiring to run. This ‘theory of tiredness’ is not scientific, but it does allow us to say “Well, if you’re going to run software that is especially tiring, you’ll need a server that doesn’t get tired very easily.” And so you buy twice as much RAM, and it might take twice as long to get tired (but probably not: it’s more likely to either take 1.2 times as long or 20 times as long, because that’s how these things tend to work in practice).

We can also say with confidence that anthropomorphic concepts will be sticky when we develop organizational theories. The human brain is a network of neural networks (the limbic system, neocortex and brain stem are all neural networks: network them together properly (including the bits that I left out that are also neural networks) and you get one big neural network that fits into a skull). An organization’s decision-making organ is a network of neural networks. (Alice, Bob, and Charlie all use their neural networks to make decisions. When you connect them to each other you get a network of neural networks.)

The differences between organizational psychology and individual psychology are not straightforward. The fact that both classes of entities ‘have a psyche that can be studied’ is an interesting claim in itself.

Therefore, any theory of organizational change should probably begin with a disclaimer, something like “These theories are often helpful, but they are not perfectly reliable. We looked for the truth, what we found might not always hold true.” You could translate that into Chinese like this:

道可道﹐非常道。 名可名,非常名。

If you did that, you’d have written out the first two sentence of the Dao De Jing (also known as the Tao Te Ching), which is the foundation document of Daoism (Taoism). And that’s interesting, because while mystics and missionaries tend to regard it as a holy text that examines the mysteries of the soul, I regard it a ruthlessly pragmatic compilation of advice to an aspiring imperial courtier.

(Consider the passage about “wei wu wei” which mystics frequently claim is some sort of ideal about how a person should aspire to be free from aspirations. Read it in a different mood and you get “Feed the peasants and take care of their problems for them. If they can’t solve problems for themselves, they will always need good government.”)

Indeed, nobody has ever been better motivated to understand organizational politics than the would-be custodians of the Central Kingdom: there’s a lot that can be mined from Chinese philosophy. The next thing that comes to mind is the disagreement between the Daoist school and the Legalist school.

Ask a Daoist what is good in life, and they will likely say “Plenty of food, freedom from exertion, and sex with multiple orgasms.” Ask a Legalist what is good in life, and they will likely say “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.”

Which reminds me, in order to address the complexity, we’re going to need yin-yang theory.

Daoism is a philosophy that emphasizes the yin: the dark, unseen, subtle, wet, quiet, dense, and inevitable. Legalism is a philosophy that emphasizes the yang: the bright, visible, explicit, dry, noisy, flashy, and temporary. Hyper-intellectual business-school planners are also very yang in nature. They produce fantastic charts that make everything really explicit and clear, and make announcements to much acclaim. And then nothing really changes.

When yin and yang are in harmony, then the subtle movements of the things you have but didn’t recognize (I think Dave calls these the ‘unknown knowns’ and ‘the true danger’) make a contribution to your outward behaviour. And your outward behaviour feeds usefully into your internal assets.

There’s lots of other Chinese medical theories that are likely to usefully inform such an effort, such as ‘root and branch’, ‘near and far’, and I think I’ve already written about ‘the unwelcome guest’. And of course, there’s my own theories of domains and layering, and my specific advice about introducing an innovation.

But yeah, it’s tricky. And it’s going to stay tricky for a long time. I don’t think we’ll see a comprehensive theory that can guide us in my lifetime — not until we can solve the problem of how conversing in a domain can never be the same as conversing in the space between domains. Once you start talking about a map (a guiding theory), you’re not really in the space between domains any more. The trick is in how to have a map without talking about it.

In the meantime, we will simply have to accept that we can’t have a complicated theory about a complex topic without condemning ourselves to disorder. All we can do is have complex theories: theories that guide our effort to launch probes. Experimental protocols, not standard operating procedures.

Nick Argall is an organization engineer, structuring activities to help businesses achieve their goals.

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